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The Way It Is/ Franchitti vs Briscoe for IRL title

by Gordon Kirby
Dario Franchitti led all the way at Infineon Raceway on Sunday to score his fourth win of the year and the eighth win this season for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. Franchitti's victory was his twelfth IRL win and 22nd overall triumph in Indy cars since joining CART back in 1997. Dario qualified on the pole and proved unbeatable in the race despite the best efforts of Ryan Briscoe. But the Australian's smooth drive to second moved him into the lead of the IRL championship, four points ahead of Franchitti with three races to go. Franchitti's teammate Scott Dixon got involved in a multi-car shunt on the opening lap and could finish no better than thirteenth, falling twenty points behind Briscoe.

"Getting pole position yesterday really set up today," Franchitti remarked. "It allowed us to go and control the race. It was important to get a good start. We seemed to be good on starts and restarts today and the car was very good on the red tires. We kind of controlled the pace from the front and saved a lot of fuel. It was a decision to push hard and try to build a gap or to save fuel and just control the pace. We decided to save fuel and control the pace.

"The Firestone reds were pretty much as good on the last lap as the first," Dario continued. "We managed to go one lap longer than Ryan and that allowed us to gain a gap on the first stop. That transferred into the second stop as well. The car wasn't so good on the black tires but back on the reds again it was great. We actually used a set of used reds for the last twenty laps.

"The car was just great. We were just controlling the pace and the Target boys did a great job in the pits. I was just trying to be inch-perfect, not make any mistakes and keep everybody in the rearview mirror. I was just driving my own race, trying not to get caught up in what was going on behind me and not to make a mistake.

"It's just so competitive that you can't afford to make any mistakes. We've all made them this year and actually we've all had bad luck as well. When you've got the chance, you've got to score the points."

Dario's engineer, Chris Simmons, said he believes he and his driver played the tire strategy perfectly. "I don't know if we had the best car out there but we had the best strategy and the best driver," Simmons said. "The tires were good. We actually put on a used set of reds at the end. We were a little concerned. Everyody else was going to scrubbed reds because they were so much faster."

Bridgestone/Firestone racing boss Al Speyer said his company is trying hard to produce tires that differ in performance enough to force teams to try substantially different strategies. But the concept doesn't work out in practice.

"We want to make people run different strategies," Speyer noted. "But most of them end up doing the same thing. There are a lot of simulations involved by the teams. We brought a different tire here than everyone had tested on, but everyone figured it out very quickly."

Franchitti said his only serious moment came when he was lapping Milka Duno on one occasion.

"The speed differential must have been 40 mph," Dario observed. "I had to back-off and time the pass so Ryan wouldn't get a run on me. If I'd have gone steaming up there he would have gone running past me. When I went off-line to pass Milka it was quite difficult. That was the one real worrying point."

In the middle of the race the track got very slippery from sand thrown onto the track by the many off-course excursions from much of the field.

"At the end of the second run, just before the second pitstop, somebody dropped a bunch of stuff down in turn nine," Franchitti said. "That made it quite difficult to brake and stop there. I had a couple of moments there when I almost outbraked myself.

"The track was very dusty off-line. One of the problems here is the weather is gorgeous but there's not much grass and it gets quite dusty. The wind blows it on the track and a lot of people drive off as well. That makes the track very, very slippery."

Franchitti was surprised at how fresh he felt at the end of the race.

"It wasn't that physical of a race," he remarked. "Ryan and I were talking on the podium. In years past it was a lot more physical but it really wasn't so difficult today. I really wasn't feeling it was that tough in the car. I think the more road and street courses the IndyCar series has we build that fitness. It doesn't matter how much we train in the gym, there's no substitute for getting out there and doing laps in conditions like this. Next year we're going to have even more road and street courses, so that's cool."

Briscoe continued to show superb consistency as he scored his seventh second place finish this year.

"I couldn't do anything behind Dario," Briscoe admitted. "It was really difficult. I was really surprised that Dario went a lap further in the first stint. My strategy going into the race was to stay on his rear wing, save fuel, go a lap further than him and beat him because I'd gone a lap further. But he surprised me by going a lap further.

"I think we need to look at what we can do differently at this track," Briscoe went on. "My first guess is gear ratios because I felt I was getting pretty good fuel mileage, but he went further. I think that was key today. I was pressuring him, doing what I could, but he wouldn't budge or make any mistakes.

"When he started having a bit of trouble on the black tires, I was having trouble on the black tires as well. So we both had the same issue at the same time of the race. He had a couple of lock-ups on the black tires, but at the same time I was really struggling too. Maybe we could have done a slightly different tire strategy. We just followed him all day and tried to stay as close as I could and pressure him into a mistake.

"The best opportunities came when we caught lapped traffic, but he was pretty smart about it. He made the right moves so I didn't have an opportunity to pass him. He did a good job.

"It's not an easy track to pass," Briscoe added. "I think on any track, when the competition is so close it's really hard to make a difference. This is for sure one of the harder tracks. It lacks a very long straightaway where you can get beside somebody."

Briscoe said Honda's much-vaunted push-to-pass system wasn't much use at Infineon last weekend.

"It doesn't do a whole lot," Ryan remarked. "You want to use it when you can make a pass, but I just didn't find myself getting right there where it was going to make enough of a difference to make the move."

After the first round of pitstops Briscoe's teammate Helio Castroneves caught Franchitti and Briscoe.

"At one point I saw Helio missed his braking point ito the hairpin," Briscoe commented. "I said, 'Make sure he doesn't run up the back of me.' But I wasn't really worried because he's smart.

"I believe he was on the option tire at the time. Apart from the pressure, it really gave us a good indication that was the tire we needed to finish the race on. It was clear at that point how much quicker the red tire was. Even though Helio was quite a lot quicker and caught us up it never really looked like he could be right there in the braking zone."

Later, Castroneves crashed when his car's suspension failed followed a contretemps with his old friend Tony Kanaan. Briscoe said both he and Franchitti were struggling with their tires in the middle of the race.

"It was hard," Briscoe said. "Both Dario and I were hanging on at the end of at that stint on the harder tire. It was pretty slippery. It's just a tough place to pass on."

Despite thirteen changes in the championship lead from fourteen races so far this year, Briscoe believes he can stay on top through the remaining three races.

"I guess you don't want to be leading going into the last race," he remarked. "But I don't look at it that way. If I'm leading, I'm going to try to hang onto the lead. I like the next three races. I think we're going to be very competitive. The car's been good at all the mile-and-a-half ovals this year."

Briscoe assessed the final three races all on dissimilar 1.5-mile ovals.

"They're all unique circuits in their own," Briscoe commented. "Chicago is obviously going to be a Texas or Kentucky-style race with lots of two and three-wide racing. You can find yourself between first and tenth in a heartbeat. It's going to be tough racing, especially with the aero changes we saw come onboard at Kentucky, which is going to allow everybody to be very aggressive and to run nose-to-tail very closely. It was already like that last year, so I'm predicting even more this year.

"Motegi is a unique one-and-a-half mile oval with just very open turns one and two and closed turns three and four. It's a great track and you never know what the weather is going to be like, cold or hot. I really love the track in Japan. I haven't had the best success there yet, but I really enjoy the circuit. I'm looking forward to going there. We've just got to stay focused. It's going to be tough because these last three races are drawn-out. It's going to be a time to really stay focused.

"And Homestead, we ended up quickest in the open test down there this year. It's a tricky circuit. Also, it depends a lot on the temperature of the circuit as to how slick it gets. It's often very windy as well."

Meanwhile, Briscoe's teammate Will Power broke his second and fourth lumbar vertebra in an accident during practice on Saturday. Power hit Nelson Philippe's car after the latter had spun. The Australian also broke a tooth and badly cut his bottom lip.

"That shows how much extension his neck went through," Rick Mears remarked. "The HANS device really did its job. Without it, he could have been very badly injured."

Power remains in hospital in California for a couple of days this week before being flown to Indianapolis where Dr. Terry Trammell will oversee his convalescence. Power will be fitted with a custom-built back brace. Philippe suffered a concussion, an open fracture of his left foot and a hairline fracture to his right fibula. Philippe will also be out of action for some time and will be fitted with a leg brace.

Finally, J.R. Hildebrand scored a dominant win in Sunday's Indy Lights race at Infineon. Hildebrand has served a solid apprenticeship in FF2000, Atlantic and Indy Lights and has put himself in position to win this year's Lights championship. Hildebrand clearly is a talented young American who deserves a proper shot at Indy car racing. Will he get it? Next week we'll take a close look at Hildebrand's burgeoning career.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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